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Editorial Introduction

Brenda Farnell

This issue continues our editorial focus on recent contributions to the anthropological literature on Australian Aboriginal dancing (see volume 21, no. 1, Spring 2014). These, in turn, complement the special double issue of JASHM (volume 18, nos. 1 and 2, 2011) devoted to papers written by Drid Williams during her lectureship in Aboriginal dance at the University of Sydney, Australia (1986-89). Those papers were grounded in the ethnographic fieldwork Williams conducted among Aboriginal peoples in the Cape York Peninsula during this period. The current issue includes papers by Franca Tamisari and Rosita Henry, followed by a bibliography of literature on Australian Aboriginal dancing that covers the years 1987–2013.

Tamisari's paper, "Feeling, Motion, and Attention in the Display of Emotions in Yolngu Law, Song, and Dance Performance," provides a well-grounded ethnographic account that advances discussion of how Yolngu dances and dancing create and communicate meaning. Avoiding the pitfalls of some phenomenological approaches, the author skillfully allows the significance of a range of emotional meanings to emerge in ways that are both clear and culturally appropriate. She identifies an earlier tendency in the academic literature to focus on referential or symbolic meanings (that is, the idea that 'this movement stands for that') and a neglect of meanings that are also sensory and emotional. One of the most important points of this paper is that vital cultural, interpersonal—as well as personal—knowledge are forged via emotional participation in the dancing.

Suzanne Langer once said, "Ritual, like art, is essentially the active termination of a symbolic transformation of experience" (1951[1942]: 49). Her point was that, as soon as an expressive act is performed without inner momentary compulsion, it is no longer self-expressive: it is expressive in a logical sense. It is 'expressive of'—that is, it is an intentional act of an embodied human agent, not the spontaneous 'expression' of the actor/dancer's personal feelings. While this may be true of Western theatrical arts, Tamisari invites us to ask whether this distinction holds true in these Indigenous Australian ceremonial contexts. Perhaps not, since actual emotional participation is also required. The article clearly outlines what is being expressed and how and sheds new light on a fundamental question: "What are people doing when they dance? (Williams 2004: 21).

Henry's paper, "Dancing Diplomacy: Performance and the Politics of Protocol in Australia,"1 expands on her previous interest in Aboriginal engagements with the nation-state (see Henry 2014) to explore how Indigenous Australians are productively harnessing the performative power of their cultural heritage to engage with, but also move beyond, state power. Henry defines diplomacy as "a form of political engagement in which the participants employ various performance tactics of etiquette, to announce whatever claims are at stake and with the intention of avoiding open conflict." Through her comparative analysis of three different performance events, we learn how, "in the service of diplomacy, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians employ 'the human body as a moving agent in a spatially organized world of meaning' (Farnell 2001: 7)."

The events under consideration by Henry are at local, regional, and national levels: a birthday celebration on Thursday Island (Torres Strait); a regional cultural festival in Cape York (Queensland); and the national opening of parliament in Canberra (Australia) on February 12, 2008. Combining semiotic and phenomenological understandings, Henry considers aesthetic experience and emotional affect (feelings) as separate from symbolic values (meaning), which subject matter again opens up space for further discussion of Langer's distinction between 'expression' and 'expressive' in ritual contexts, as well as possible relationships between feeling and meaning and between somatic and semiotic (see Best 1985 and Farnell 2012 for further discussion). In light of the ethnographic evidence presented in these stimulating papers, we might propose that, although ritual efficacy requires participants to express immediately felt experience and emotions during ritual participation, the ritual process itself transforms these into movements/dance and talk/song that are expressive of those feelings. This would enable newly embodied as well as intellectual knowledge and reflexive understandings to be available to participants as successful ritual outcomes.

We conclude this issue with a new bibliography of the literature (in English) on Australian Aboriginal dancing that covers the years 1987-2013. This updates the bibliography compiled in 1986 by Stephen A. Wild in his chapter, "Australian Aboriginal Theatrical Movement" published in Theatrical Movement: A Bibliographical Anthology (Fleshman 1986) and included as an appendix to Williams's 1991 paper "Survey of Australian Literature on Aboriginal Dancing" (see JASHM vol. 18, 2011). We are pleased to provide readers with a bibliography that covers the subsequent years, and we thank Fiona McGowan for contributing her regional expertise and suggestions.

Together these papers and those in the previous issue provide JASHM readers with stimulating examples of contemporary ethnographic research on Australian Aboriginal dances and festivals. We are pleased to welcome their contributions into international debates within the anthropology of human movement.



1 This paper was first published in Made in Oceania: Social Movements, Cultural Heritage and the State in the Pacific, edited by E. Hviding and K. Rio (Wantage, GB: Sean Kingston Publishing, 2011). Hardback (ISBN 978-1-907774-06-5) and paperback editions (978-1-907774-11-9). Reproduced with permission of Sean Kingston Publishing (


References Cited:

Best, David
1985. Feeling and Reason in the Arts. London: Harper Collins.

Farnell, Brenda
2001. Introduction. Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and Invisible in Movement and Dance (ed. B. Farnell). Lanham, MD, and London: Scarecrow Press: 1-28.
2012. Dynamic Embodiment for Social Theory: 'I Move, Therefore I Am'. London and New York: Routledge.

Fleshman, Bob (ed.)
1986. Theatrical Movement: A Bibliographical Anthology. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

Henry, Rosita
2014. Engaging with History by Performing Tradition: The Poetic Politics of Indigenous Australian Festivals. JASHM 21(1).

Langer, Suzanne
1951 [1942]. Philosophy in a New Key. New York: Mentor.

Wild, Stephen A.
1986. Australian Aboriginal Theatrical Movement. In Theatrical Movement: A Bibliographical Anthology (ed. B. Fleshman). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press: 610-20.

Williams, Drid
1991. Appendix 11: Survey of Australian Literature on Aboriginal Dancing. In Ten Lectures on Theories of the Dance. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press: 322-378.
2004 [1991]. Anthropology and the Dance: Ten Lectures. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.


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